Charles Atlas with a Halo: America’s Billy Graham

by Grant Wacker

Grant Wacker is associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This article appeared in The Christian CENTURY, April 1, 1992, pp. 336-341. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at http:/ Article prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. Adams.


Following a brief summary of Billy Graham’s popularity over nearly a half century, Wacker notes the hostility Graham has engendered from both the religious left and right. In what is essentially a complimentary review of William Martin’s book, A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story, Wacker credits the author with showing a balanced view of Graham, and summarizes Graham’s appeal from political, social, cultural, as well as homiletical, ecclesiastical and theological perspectives.

A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story.

By William Martin. Morrow, 735 pp., $25.00.


Someone has quipped that an evangelical can be defined as anyone who really likes Billy Graham. If so, there are a lot of evangelicals out there. The number of people who have seen him in person or on television, or heard him on the radio, or read his newspaper column or monthly magazine or one of his books, staggers the imagination. Nearly 40 years ago 100,000 souls jammed Yankee Stadium in 105-degree heat for the closing night of Graham's New York crusade. That 12-week endeavor drew 2 million hearers, the longest-running and best attended event in the history of Madison Square Garden. The story was pretty much the same wherever he preached--Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, Denver. Invariably, or almost invariably, Graham drew the largest crowds in memory.

Overseas Graham's appeal proved even greater. Three years before the New York meetings, Graham attracted 185,000 faithful in a driving rain to Wembley Stadium, topping the crowd at the 1948 Olympics and marking the largest religious gathering in British history. Five years later he obliterated attendance records at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds, including those set there by the 1956 Olympics. The closing service of Graham's 1973 Seoul crusade drew 1,120,000 seekers (a count made possible by a painted grid on the ground). That figure still stands as the largest religious gathering in history. But numbers of even that magnitude shrink to insignificance with the advent of satellite-link television. The quarter million who packed Rio's Maracana Soccer Stadium in 1974 were overshadowed by the additional 50 million who watched the live TV broadcast, personally arranged by Brazil's president. Graham dwarfed that figure in Hong Kong in 1990 when, on his 72nd birthday, he addressed 100 million viewers through a live-link network strung across the Asian continent-almost certainly the largest aggregation of souls ever to hear about Jesus Christ.

Attendance figures of that sort might be difficult to swallow if they were not backed up by other kinds of evidence of Graham's prominence. But they are. Graham's magazine, Decision, shows up each month in 2 million mailboxes in 163 countries, making it the most widely distributed religious periodical in the world. The headquarters of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) in Minneapolis receives 145,000 letters per week, twice that number per day during the quarterly TV broadcasts. Like letters to Santa Claus, some bear only two words of address: "Billy Graham." The evangelist has nabbed a spot on the Gallup Poll's Ten Most Admired Men list more often than anyone--32 times in 40 years. When he opened a crusade in his home town of Charlotte, North Carolina, in the fall of 1971, schoolchildren, government workers and store clerks got a holiday, as the governor of the state, U.S. senators from North and South Carolina and the secretary of the treasury showed up to pay tribute. In a 1978 Ladies Home Journal survey, under the category "achievements in religion," Graham outstripped everyone except God. Later Graham was listed by Life magazine as one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century (the only other religious figure being Graham's perennial critic, Reinhold Niebuhr). Possibly the most telling index of Graham's status is, however, a letter in the Nixon Archives in which one woman wrote the president to see if he could get her an appointment with Billy Graham. Little wonder that the London Evening News affectionately dubbed him "Charles Atlas with a Halo."

If those marks of approval are not enough to establish Graham's standing as the most lionized religious figure of modem history, the bitterness and persistence of the hostility he has provoked surely is. Back in the 1930s when he was first learning his craft by holding forth on the street corners of Tampa, Florida, he found that outdoor preaching was a hard dollar. It often meant putting up with sneering spectators or worse, as when he was slugged by an irate tavern-keeper who saw his business floating away. Opposition has dogged Graham's career. As late as 1978, long after his status as a virtual demigod had been established in most parts of the Western world, hecklers in Scandinavia hurled rotten fruit, cream pies and garbage.

Yet physical punishment of that sort was minor compared to the verbal abuse he endured year in, year out. Journalist Garry Wills once described Graham's friendship with Nixon as an "alliance of moral dwarves." Graham was invited onto TV talk shows, then charged with being "psychologically sick" and telling "sanctified lies" to hoodwink the gullible. Liberal church people knew a rat when they smelled one. A CHRISTIAN CENTURY writer panned him for not having a "glimmer of a notion about what is really going on in the world," while another CENTURY pundit termed his prayer at Nixon's inauguration a "raucous harangue." In Uppsala a Lutheran seminary put out a booklet assailing Graham's ministry as "spiritual rape." Back in New York, Union Seminary's Reinhold Niebuhr denounced Graham's sermons as simplistic and the thousands of conversions that putatively followed them as shallow and meaningless. When Graham sought an audience with Niebuhr to discuss their common goals, Niebuhr refused.

The most venomous criticism came not from the left, however, but from the right. Once Graham made it clear that he would work with anyone who would work with him, liberal, Catholic or otherwise, hard-core fundamentalists coiled up and struck without mercy or discrimination. Bob Jones--founder of the college Graham first attended declared that Graham had done "more harm to the cause of Jesus Christ than any living man." When Jones died, Bob. Jr., dispatched a note to Graham warning that he would not be welcome at the funeral.

With a pedigree like that, there is little wonder that Graham has been the subject of thousands of articles and several full-dress biographies. Some, such as John Pollock's Billy Graham: Evangelist to the World, were breathless descriptions of the "gee whiz, ain’t he the greatest?" variety. Others, such as Marshall Frady's Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness, dripped with condescension. Now comes Rice University sociologist William Martin. His volume may not be the Mother of All Biographies, but it is hard to imagine any scholar tackling the subject for at least another decade. Two and one-half years in the writing, this massive, densely packed volume reflects scores of interviews with Graham and his associates, plus a sedulous reading of thousands of pages of archival materials.

Martin's account is beautifully limned, often painfully funny, sometimes nothing short of inspired. Though Graham authorized the biography, neither he nor anyone else in the BGEA exercised editorial control. Martin tells us that he considers fairness the cardinal virtue of a scholar. If that is the criterion for sainthood, Martin should be canonized. He strains to give Graham the benefit of the doubt but also makes clear that he possesses feet of clay. Or to borrow a line Martin applies to Lyndon

Johnson, Graham emerges as a "flawed but titanic figure," all the more admirable because of the reality of his faults.

Martin does not mount a tightly focused argument, but three large themes do weave in and out of the story. One is the "cozy symbiosis" between church and state that marked Graham's career from the beginning. Martin marshals incontestable evidence that for the better part of four decades the top echelons of the U.S. government--and a good many foreign governments too, for that matter--were never more than a phone call away. As far back as 1952, when Graham was still breaking in his white-buck evangelist's shoes, House Speaker Sam Rayburn persuaded Congress to permit him to conduct the first ever worship service on the Capitol steps. So it went year after year. Though Graham's ties to the political establishment became less cozy in the 1980s (more on that later), he never wholly disappeared from the corridors of secular power. His presence in the White House on the night of January 16, 1991, seemed to legitimate, if not sanctify, Bush's decision to bomb Baghdad.

Graham's links with a succession of American presidents is particularly revealing. He never managed to gain a beachhead with Truman, and his relationships with Kennedy and Carter could be described as politely cool. But for all the others, there is substantial evidence that he really did function as unofficial chaplain and close friend. Journalists have fixed upon Graham's intimate ties with Nixon, which is understandable, for the record proves that their locker-room camaraderie was real. Yet Martin suggests that it was Johnson, not Nixon, who really won Graham's heart. Graham knew that Johnson was no saint, but mutual respect for the extraordinary talent each possessed and a common commitment to Jesus Christ bonded the two leviathans in a friendship that was as deep and as genuine as either man ever knew.

There is considerable irony in Graham's insistence, especially before Nixon's debacle, that his ministry transcended politics. He seems never to have grasped that perennial hobnobbing with presidents and secretaries of state telegraphed approval of current policies, or that he could not credibly declare that there was no American he admired more than Nixon and then insist on his impartiality in the next election. One Graham associate may have said it best when he confided to Martin, "Billy still has no idea of how badly Nixon snookered him."

Still, there is another side to the story. Though Martin clearly is troubled by the incongruities, if not outright disingenuousness, of Graham's track record in those matters, he also makes it clear that more often than not Graham was the hunted, not the hunter. High politicos went out of their way to have their photos taken with Graham, knowing all too well that his benign presence was worth a good ten or 20 points in the approval ratings. On the whole, one is hard-pressed to find examples of other leaders, religious or otherwise, who did a better job of managing access to so much power, especially when it presented itself as the power to do good.

A second persistent theme of the biography is the extraordinary affinity between Graham's personality and ideals on one hand and American middle-class values on the other. Though Martin does not suggest, with Fray, that Graham served as little more than a "parable of American righteousness," he does propose that the man and the message fit the spirit of the age and the culture with uncanny precision. At the most obvious level, the sociological one, it is clear that when Graham spoke, middle America heard itself. Martin's descriptions of the folk who showed up at Graham's crusades always circle back to the same set of adjectives: solid, hard-working, neighborly, patriotic, family-respecting, God-fearing. Among those folk, Martin deadpans, he found few who looked like they were accustomed to sipping Chablis at the Boston Pops, and fewer still who looked like they were headed for a Bruins slugfest to raise a little hell. The same was true of Graham himself, who in dress, diction and demeanor never rose much above his constituency. You could almost smell the aroma of Mom's apple pie in everything he said. Scan the platform, scan the crowd, Martin suggests: everyone would fit in with the Dothan, Alabama, Lion's Club--the very middle of the middle class.

Besides representing middling social status, Graham has exemplified other aspects of America's image of itself. Whether the folks of middle America actually measured up to their own ideals is beside the point. Graham did it for them. He knew, first of all, how to keep his sexual and financial affairs in order. Investigative snoops never managed to turn up a hint of impropriety on either front. Graham's relation to money was particularly note-worthy. In 1950 he put himself on an annual salary, pegged at the level of a successful urban pastor. In 1991 that sum was $80,000. That figure shrinks to insignificance when measured against the $70 million in small change that annually flows into the BGEA coffers, or the additional millions that his books, weekly newspaper column and speaking engagements bring in each year. It dwindles even more when ranked against the multimillion-dollar offers Graham regularly turned down over the years to star in TV shows or run for political office.

The crusades epitomized middle America's penchant for rational forethought. Early on, Graham figured out that revivals had to be worked up as well as prayed down. His now-famous 1949 Los Angeles crusade, where William Randolph Hearst supposedly "discovered" and presented him to the nation like an evangelical debutante, was in fact a meticulously orchestrated event, accompanied by a storm of handbills, billboards and full-page newspaper ads heralding "America's Sensational Young Evangelist"--accompanied of course by a "Dazzling Array of Gospel Talent." The BGEA, incorporated in 1950, quickly established itself as the best-oiled and smoothest-running advance-planning machine in the business. The arrangements that went into the 1986 District of Columbia crusade were typical of the big rallies of the later years: 500,000 personal invitations issued, 400,000 packets of material mailed to area homes, thousands of prayer groups meeting regularly for months ahead, 4,000 workers trained to counsel with "inquirers," another thousand prepared for follow-up work. Though spit-and-polish advance men from the BGEA handled the technical arrangements, some 1,750 pastors from 79 denominations in the capital region cooperated throughout.

Rational forethought meant predictability. Moms and dads wondering whether they wanted to cope with the crusade throngs at least could be confident that the kids would not be subjected to a tirade against Roman Catholics or a harangue about American foreign policy. They knew what to expect: George Beverly Shea crooning "How Great Thou Art," a converted athlete assuring them that "Coach Jesus" would never cut them from the gospel squad, a born-again starlet promising that the biggest thrill was to see one's name not in marquee lights but in the Lamb's Book of Life. Then Graham's sermon, fueled by incessant pacing, stabbing gestures and machine-gun delivery--clocked by frantic stenographers at 240 words per minute. The sermon would begin with a gaggle of jokes as homegrown as the crops he used to raise on his father's farm. Hitting his stride, Graham would proceed to tick off a list of the world's problems (with none too much attention to getting the facts exactly straight). Soon he would come forcefully to the point: Christ and Christ alone offered the only lasting solution to those problems. Martin perceptively suggests that Graham's crusades resembled a huge homecoming reunion, cheerfully undoctrinal, warmly reassuring. All that was lacking, he might well have added, was the Chevrolet theme song, "Listen to the Heartbeat of America."

Arguably, Norman Rockwell's middle America found its fullest expression--sociologically, culturally, perhaps even theologically--in post-World War II evangelicalism, sometimes called the New Evangelicalism. In that respect too Graham symbolized an era and a culture. Martin intimates that it was Graham, above all, who midwifed evangelicalism into existence in the 1950s, giving it a genial identity separate from the sulfuric fulminations of the fundamentalists. He played a leading role in developing the nation's two most influential evangelical seminaries, Fuller in California and Gordon-Conwell in Massachusetts. Discerning that there were numerous evangelicals within the mainline denominations for whom the CHRISTIAN CENTURY did not speak, Graham played a pivotal role in launching the rival Christianity Today as a forum for moderately conservative thought on religious and political affairs. The latter soon became (and remains) the most widely read serious religious periodical in the U.S. More important, perhaps, Graham orchestrated the World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin in 1966, the International Congress on Evangelism in Lausanne in 1974, and the International Congress on Itinerant Evangelists in Amsterdam in 1983 and 1986. Those conferences, which cost the BGEA tens of millions of dollars, galvanized evangelicalism as a worldwide phenomenon with a voice comparable to the Vatican and the left-leaning World Council of Churches.

The third major theme of the book is hard to snag in a word or two. For lack of a better term it might be called the transforming power of a second chance. Graham himself presents a classic example of the way that a man can mature and, in the process, come to see things in a dramatically new and enriched way. Back in the 1950s (to crib a line Martin Marty used about someone else), Graham saw communists everywhere he looked, and he looked everywhere. One prominent newspaper aptly dubbed him "Communism's Public Enemy Number One." Although the young Graham refused to countenance segregated seating in his crusades (often at the price of sullen resistance from white supporters), he seems to have expended equal energy urging civil rights protesters to go slow--giving credence to Reinhold Niebuhr's charge that he expected Christians to give up peccadillos like smoking and cussing overnight, but overcoming racism might understandably take a while. The same pattern defined Graham's reaction to Vietnam and other pressing issues of the day: grudging recognition that the American barque may have suffered a crack or two, but confidence that on the whole it was seaworthy.

By the early 1980s the secular and religious press had awakened to the fact that somewhere along the way a Christian statesman had emerged from the cocoon of southern evangelicalism. This change came to the media's attention at a conference on nuclear weapons that Graham attended in Moscow in 1982. He knew that the meeting was little more than a communist propaganda ploy, but he also sensed that the threat of a nuclear holocaust was so grave he had to take a stand for disarmament, despite resistance from the Reagan administration and steel-tipped invectives from the Religious Right. Graham's courage in that situation betokened a deepening and broadening of perspective that had been in the making for well over a decade. He had come to articulate progressive views on homelessness, capital punishment and the government's role in eradicating poverty. Eschewing American triumphalism, he sought to hold himself as accountable to Christians in India as in Indiana. Some activists, particularly in civil rights, still upbraided him for fecklessness. But in the view of most observers--from Dan Rather to the bestowers of the Templeton Award–the Reverend Mr. Graham had become the Reverend Dr. Graham, a forceful voice for world peace, social justice and ecological sanity.

The same broadening was evident in the content of Graham's preaching. Imprecations about the yawning jaws of hell gave way to a more pastoral concern with loneliness, meaningless and the fear of death. For those perennial griefs there was of course only one lasting solution: a life-transforming commitment to Jesus Christ. Though Graham never softened that fundamental insistence, in the late 1970s and 1980s the outer layers of the message changed significantly. He tempered his views on the automatic damnation of non-Christians, spoke less of satanic forces in human affairs, avoided the technicalities of premillennialist theology, talked positively of the charismatic movement and urged more compassion and less pontificating on the subjects of divorce and wayward adolescents. He distanced himself from the Religious Right, having learned the hard way that the preacher and the politician dance together at their own peril.

All those changes seem to have stemmed from a deeper transformation in personality and temperament. Not that Graham ever had been ungracious or immodest. Indeed, from the 1940s onward, journalists invariably commented on his warmth and humility. Even those who disliked his message usually came away, as one initially hostile British interviewer did, admitting that the bloke obviously was a saint. The deep-seated transformation that Martin describes had to do rather with a certain largeness of spirit less evident in the earlier years. "In groups which in my ignorant piousness I formerly 'frowned upon,’" Graham confessed, "I have found men so dedicated to Christ and so in love with the truth that I have felt unworthy to be in their presence." Though he made few if any explicit concessions to theological liberalism, he came to believe that his task was not to denounce anyone, but only and always to proclaim a redeeming message of salvation. What an unbelieving world most needs to see in the church, he added in a telling postscript, was a unanimity not of doctrine but of love. That new breadth of outlook may have stemmed from Graham's increasingly frequent contacts with impoverished and embattled Christians in the Third World and behind the iron curtain. Or it may be the kind of wisdom one expects from a man who has been blessed with sufficient years to see his large brood of grandchildren grow to responsible adulthood. Whatever the source, it is difficult to think of any modern world leader who manifested more striking earmarks of political and spiritual growth.

As Graham’s half-century world ministry draws to a close, what does it all amount to? What are the results of hundreds of crusades launched and millions of dollars spent? Martin the sociologist is surprisingly diffident at this point. He describes the quantitative studies that have been devoted to answering this question, but admits that the results are confusing and seem to depend to an inordinate degree upon the assumptions of the investigator. At least one thing is clear: the majority of the hundreds of thousands of inquirers who came forward over the years were not first-time converts but rededicators. Martin rightly brushes aside any suggestion that a rededication of one's life to Christ was any less momentous than a first-time conversion. Those persons were effectively saying, "I am now ready to assume the responsibility of living as a Christian."

Still, the question remains: How long did those commitments last? How many of those rededications took deep root and withstood the hectoring gales of life's winter seasons? Again, the arithmetic is almost impossible to figure. When two prepubescent boys toss their hats in the air as they skip across the stadium field on their way to the inquiry room, Martin dryly notes, it is evident that not every conversion flows from the "deepest well-springs of heart or mind." But Graham always knew that. And it may well be that here, as in most affairs that truly matter, the sociologists' spreadsheets are beside the point. When the computers are shut down and the lights turned off, the letters--the millions of letters that made their way to "Billy Graham, Minneapolis, Minnesota"--remain. What those missals indisputably attest is that Graham helped ordinary men and women find new water in wells that had long since run dry.

"I am still a man in process," Graham recently told Martin. Though what he said was true, it may have been more true than he realized. Graham's own pilgrimage toward a profounder understanding of the Christian faith is living proof of what it means to enjoy a second chance, to be given an opportunity to take another look and rethink one's deepest commitments--and maybe even redo the rest of one's life. That may be a poor man's definition of divine grace, but it is also what the Billy Graham story is ultimately all about.